On July 19, 2016, in the case of State v. Robert J. Stein, The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously held that a municipal prosecutor must provide audio and video discovery, including relevant out of town discovery. This is important because municipal prosecutors often object to providing 911 or dispatch audio if maintained by the county.
The case involved a conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and careless driving. The responding officers observed that defendant’s eyes were bloodshot and watery, his speech was slurred, his breath smelled of alcohol, and, as he walked, he swayed and grasped for support. Defendant also failed the field sobriety tests. Defendant claimed that, while performing the sobriety tests, he was suffering the effects of the crash of his vehicle and deployment of the air bags, which hit him squarely in the face. The two breath samples that defendant gave during a breathalyzer test revealed blood alcohol concentrations of 0.17 and 0.18 percent.
In pretrial discovery, defendant requested the names of the police officers who responded to the scene, including those from a neighboring township. The municipal prosecutor did not provide the names of the neighboring township’s officers, and defendant did not raise the issue with the municipal court. Defendant also requested videotapes which may have recorded his appearance, behavior, and motor skills at the accident scene and police headquarters. The municipal prosecutor repeatedly stated, at a pretrial hearing and trial, that videotapes did not exist. Defendant disputed that contention, and continued to request the tapes. The record is unclear on whether videotapes existed when defendant requested them because that issue was neither presented to, nor determined by, the municipal court.
The municipal court found defendant guilty of DWI and careless driving based on the breathalyzer readings and the officers’ observations of defendant. The court sentenced defendant, as a third-time DWI offender, to 180 days in the county jail and loss of his license for a period of ten years. After a trial de novo, the Law Division also convicted defendant of DWI and careless driving and imposed the same sentence as did the municipal court. Additionally, the Law Division ruled that the municipal prosecutor was not required to provide discovery of the names of the neighboring police officers or the videotapes that defendant requested. The Appellate Division affirmed the motor-vehicle convictions and the Law Division’s discovery rulings.
The New Jersey Supreme Court held that under Rule 7:7-7(b), the municipal prosecutor was required to provide defendant with the names of the police officers from the adjacent jurisdiction who responded to the accident scene. Because, when the prosecutor failed to provide the information, defendant did not raise this issue before the municipal court, or seek relief under the Rule, the issue has been waived. The prosecutor was also required to provide the videotapes that defendant requested, if they existed, since such information was clearly relevant to a DWI defense. Because the Supreme Court could not determine from the record whether any videotapes exist, the matter is remanded to the Law Division for further proceedings on this issue.
Broad discovery and the open-file approach apply in criminal cases to ensure fair and just trials. In light of the similarity between criminal and municipal court cases, the procedural protections afforded, and their discovery rules, the liberal approach to discovery in criminal cases is applicable in municipal court cases. Rule 7:7-7(b) provides that a defendant has a right to discovery of all relevant material in a municipal court case. The Rule sets forth eleven specific categories of information that a defendant is entitled to receive, on written request to the municipal prosecutor.
Under Rule 7:7-7(b)(7), if the municipal prosecutor knows that police officers from an adjoining jurisdiction have relevant information pertaining to a DWI case, their names and addresses must be disclosed to the defendant. The Rule does not distinguish between individuals with relevant information who are located within the municipality having jurisdiction over the charges against a defendant, and those located outside the jurisdiction.
Under Rule 7:7-7(b)(6), a municipal prosecutor is required to provide a defendant, upon his request, with relevant documentary evidence, including video and sound recordings and images if it is within the State’s custody or control. A video or sound recording, such as a recording from a patrol car’s dashboard camera, or a video recording of a breathalyzer test, or defendant’s appearance, behavior and motor skills, including his performance of psychomotor physical or sobriety tests, is relevant to prove or disprove a DWI defendant’s intoxication. The State may seek the redaction of a video recording, or an in camera review, if necessary, under appropriate circumstances and consistent with a defendant’s fair-trial rights. To ensure the availability of such evidence, a defendant should give written notice to the municipal prosecutor to preserve pertinent videotapes.
Defendant did not seek to compel the prosecutor to comply with the State’s disclosure obligations. Because defendant did not raise or preserve the issue in municipal court, the Supreme Court declined to consider it on appeal.
The Supreme Court remands this matter to the Law Division for further proceedings to determine whether any relevant video recordings ever existed, or were available when defendant made the discovery requests. Depending on the court’s conclusions on remand regarding whether the tapes existed, the Law Division has wide latitude to fashion an appropriate remedy.